Sermons

Rev. Dr. Russ Daye

Zoom Worship – 23rd after Pentecost

October 31, 2021

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9  NRSV

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction.  And their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.  For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality.  Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.  In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble.  They will govern nations and rule over peoples and the Lord will reign over them forever.  Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his elect, and he watches over his holy ones.

Matthew 27:45-54

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.”  At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink.  But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”  Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.   At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  The earth shook, and the rocks were split.  The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.   After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.   Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

I have a friend and mentor with whom I speak frequently, but he never calls me.  I call him; he doesn’t call me.  That’s the way in our relationship.  So, when he called me last January, I immediately cried into the phone, ‘what’s wrong!’ He didn’t even point out that nothing was wrong, he just exclaimed, ‘You have to get the current issue of The Walrus!’  He then went on to explain that the issue included an article entitled ‘Why Do We See Dead People’.  Over the years we had discussed the ‘communion of saints,’ the ancient Christian teaching that our forbears are present to us in active ways, many times.  My disposition ranged between hopeful and agnostic.  He proved to be more of a sceptic.  So I was surprised by how taken he was by the article, which opens with this story related by Patricia Pearson, the author:

In the late spring of 2015, my brother-in-law paid a visit to my sister’s grave, in a lush meadow cemetery amid the Gatineau Hills of southern Quebec.  My sister had been dead, at this point, for seven years, and the couple had been separated for twelve.  Doug sat in the grass among planted geraniums for half an hour or so, musing about the rise and fall of their marriage.  He told Katharine, or her grave, that he was sorry for the part he had played in the dissolution.  Then, plucking up and tossing a handful of grass, desultory, he began his two-and-a-half-hour motorcycle journey back to Montreal.

“It wasn’t until I was maybe halfway home that I felt her presence.”

… I had the distinct sensation of her arms around me and her leaning in close against my back.  It was tactile and fantastic.  I felt warm.  I was completely calm and happy, smiling from ear to ear.  That hardly ever happens to me.”  His nervousness about the rain ebbed, and it occurred to him that Katharine was there to keep him safe on behalf of their two sons.  She—her presence, her spirit—rode behind him for twenty minutes or so.  “What I know is that it did not feel at all like a product of my imagination,” he said. “It felt external to me.  It felt real.”

The article goes on to outline research which shows that a significant percentage of people do indeed have encounters with the dead, especially loved ones.  But there is a double edge in these experiences.  Often, grieving people are comforted by these experiences, but they rarely tell anyone about them because they fear ridicule.  And when they do tell their doctors or therapists or clergy, they are often met with disbelief, simplistic rationalizations that explain them away (‘you were tired, dear’) or judgments that indicate the experiences are a sign of mental unhealth.  And the prevalence of these experiences is a problem for scientists too.  Here I quote the article again:

That the dead do not always stay dead continues to rankle the scientifically minded. When Christopher Kerr, a Toronto-raised palliative care physician who heads Hospice and Palliative Care Buffalo, first worked with patients on rounds, he was completely unprepared for the number of dreams and visions his patients described that featured the consoling dead. … “The acceleration of the science of medicine has obscured its art, and medicine, always less comfortable with the subjective, has been more concerned with disproving the unseen than revering its meaning.”  And that’s the heart of the quandary.  Nearly 150 years after the first (studies of these phenomena) scientists still have no proven thesis on what, exactly, is happening when someone hallucinates or senses the dead. 

Well, if these experiences are problematic, then there are some verses at the end of Matthew’s Gospel that will be downright disturbing.  Matthew describes the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion:

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  The earth shook, and the rocks were split.  The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.  After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 

To the contemporary ear, this sounds a lot like a zombie story.  Imagine, dead people breaking out of their graves and walking around.  What the heck are we supposed to do with a passage like this, besides write it off as a ghost story passed on from an ancient, superstitious age?

Well, the first thing we can do is remind us that we don’t have to take it literally.  We don’t have to believe that a small army of the living dead literally walked around ancient Jerusalem.  Much of the writing in both testaments, like the Ezekiel story of dry bones coming back to life that we read last week, is meant to be taken allegorically.

If we don’t take it literally, we can begin to see powerful assertions emerging in the story.  Most clear are the assertions that neither Jesus’ death nor his resurrection were events that happened to one person.  Let’s take a look at a couple of images, because the resurrection art of the Easter Orthodox church is very important at this point.

If you look at these icons, you see not only Jesus at the resurrection but others also – including Adam and Eve emerging from the grave. What’s going on here?  What’s going on is that all of humanity is being transformed – not only going forward but going backward too.  There is healing, there is empowerment; not only for Jesus’ followers present to the resurrection, not only for generations to come, but going backwards too.  For the Eastern church, resurrection is not an individual event.  It did not happen to one man alone, which is so often our assumption in the western church.  It is profoundly communal (catch that word communal – as in communion, as in communion of the saints).

I’m told that the Dalai Lama has taught that when a person finds enlightenment her family is healed backward for generations.  But how can this be?  I want to turn to a 20th century writer for some insight here.  Many of you will know the work of John Steinbeck, including his great novel The Grapes of Wrath, which is about migrant workers driven from their Oklahoma fields in when it becomes a dustbowl.  They have a long journey to California as migrant workers and suffer much oppression from the authorities and unscrupulous businessmen and their henchmen.  The book has two Christ-like figures, a preacher named Casy, who is killed, and a worker named Tom Joad, who has this conversation with his mother when his own life is in danger:

“Ma Joad: How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy?  Why they could kill ya and I’d never know.  They could hurt ya.  How am I gonna know?

Tom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says.  A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…

Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?

Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter.  I’ll be around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere.  Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.  Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.  I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

There are resurrections in this passage.  In this book, Tom Joad is a follower of the preacher Jim Casy (notice his initials).  After Casy is murdered, his wisdom is resurrected in Tom Joad, as is his strength and his willingness to sacrifice.  In various monastic traditions there is a practice of gathering disciples to sit vigil around the wise old monk or nun as he or she is dying.  There is a belief that the wisdom of the great old soul will die into the younger ones.

Isn’t this what happened to Jesus and his disciples?  Didn’t Jesus’ wisdom and charisma and courage and force of character die into them?  They were transformed from a group of fickle, feuding, confused cowards into a collection of individuals who completely altered the ancient world.  Jesus’ death made him present to them in a way he never was before.  Present in them.  And not just Jesus but Moses and Meriam and Elijah and Ester – wisdom and strength going back generations.

So, what does this mean for us?

I could try to explain it to you but I’m going to invite you into an exercise instead.  I invite you to breathe – ruach.  I’m going to invite you to picture Anne Farquharson’s face – those of you who didn’t know her; we just lost her – the most recent saint of Bloor Street.  I’m going to invite you to hear her voice.  I’m going to invite you to think of a moment you shared with her.  And I’m going to invite you to think of an expression she used or her way of talking.  And I’m going to invite you to open yourself and let the grace with which she lived pour itself into you.  Let the joy and love she had for her family and for her world and for this church pour itself into you…

I’m going to stand here for 30 seconds or so and invite you to do the same with somebody you love.  Maybe it’s Bob Farquharson.  Or maybe it’s John Spears.  Or maybe it’s Doris Dyke.  Or maybe it’s Hank Aaron…  Let’s open ourselves,  even moving through our sense of loss into the place where the saints can commune with us and be poured into us.

As we move forward friends, be comforted by the knowledge that these experiences of communion with the big soul and the saints often happen when we hurt, when they die, when we grieve or just when we sit at the grave of somebody we never reconciled with, feeling that tension.  May we commune together with all of our saints, and may they hold this community of faith as we journey forward.  God bless us.

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